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Sending My Children to Day School: It Shouldn't Be So Hard

Nothing is more important to my husband and me than sending our kids to Jewish day school. Nothing besides keeping them healthy, sheltered, fed and clothed. But as a family struggling to keep ahead of the bills, it’s a commitment that comes with a growing struggle to pay for it.

My husband makes reasonable money at a solid, mid-level corporate job. He works hard, and I’m proud of him. His company has instituted a salary freeze and requires that we pay increasingly high health insurance premiums. I’m a writer, and writing for Jewish publications (and these days, most other publications as well) pays poorly. Sometimes it seems as if Jewish day schools, at least here in New York, are meant only for the children of lawyers and investment bankers.

I buy generic everything at the drugstore. Eating out is a special occasion and I have no hang-ups about buying our clothes at Target and on sale at Macy’s. Travel is very rare, though I long to show my kids Europe and to take a mid-winter break even once at a Caribbean resort. But we can’t afford it, because our children go to Jewish day school.

Summer vacation is mostly camping, and I detest camping. Some years we rent a bungalow upstate for a week. Pleasant and cheap, but not much of a treat. We went to Israel a couple of summers back, after several years of planning, flying on Amex points saved for 15 years and touring thanks to our tax refund.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining; especially at this time of widespread American economic struggle and when pictures from Haiti are still fresh in our minds, I know that many have it so much worse. In a way, it’s a luxury to struggle over paying for day school.

But I also feel as if I don’t have a choice about where our kids go to school - I know well that only day school will help create the kind of Jews I want my children to be.

What they get from going to our day school neither my husband nor I could give them ourselves.

Though Jewish, I attended a Presbyterian boarding school, which tells you much of what you need to know. My husband, despite the fact that he grew up attending Lubavitch yeshiva, had a pretty lousy Jewish education, too — it was about rote memorization rather than understanding.

We want our children to have a different experience than we could give them ourselves. And they seem to be getting it. They feel at home in synagogue and with the liturgy in a way that I’m still trying to attain; they see the world through a prism of Jewish literature and values.

There is only one nearby school that fits our family’s educational and religious needs. My children get a solid secular and a good Jewish education in a place where Jewish pluralism and serious study are deeply held values. So there is no shopping around to do, though sending them to day school (and Jewish camps) makes money a constant stress, and this knot in my stomach a constant companion.

We just got our new enrollment contracts. This year again, even with scholarship help and even when our income has gone down, our payment has increased. Panic mounts, as I see no clear way we can pay more.

And yet.

Our 9-year-old came home from 2nd grade last year burbling with excitement about the midrashim she’d learned, eager to discuss different rabbinic interpretations of what Lag B’Omer commemorates. To her our Biblical ancestors are people rather than flat renderings on a page.

Our 10-year-old daughter, though shy in public, will go up in front of our shul with her day school friends and lead the congregation in “Ein Keloheinu” at the end of services and just chanted Torah (something I have not yet learned to do) for the first time in Junior Congregation, with ease because she had the grounding from day school.

Our 15-year-old son is able to lead any part of services, and did so beautifully when he worked as the High Holy Days assistant cantor at another Conservative synagogue. He actually feels connected to God when he davens, and has a real gift for bringing others into the same place. I don’t know if he would have gotten there through Jewish prayer if not for what he learned at day school.

This level of comfort and confidence, this level of facility with liturgy and texts is what I want for my children. My gut tells me, and the research literature bears out, that day school is the one place they will learn these things deeply and well.

We sacrifice much to send them. I don’t save for retirement. Yesterday I asked my doctor not to order a particular test because it’s too expensive, and we have a high deductible on our medical insurance. One of my children does not get the private speech and language therapy that is strongly recommended.

Our son doesn’t have the private voice lessons he should as a serious singer. He is a high school junior (in a public high school, which is the right fit for him, though Jewish high schools were simply out of the question financially) and we are starting to look at colleges. We have nothing saved for it, because that money has gone to day school tuition.

The knot in my stomach grows.

Tuition has nearly tripled — tripled! — at our K–8 day school since our son enrolled a decade ago. We never imagined it would go up so much.

When I think about what it costs to send our kids to Jewish day school (and camps), thoughts about what else we could do with the money flit through my head. But I quickly bat them away. I am not willing to regard my children’s Jewish education as one of the many luxuries we do without.

The feeling is made even worse when I learn that we are excluded from the only grant available to people sending a child to Jewish overnight camp for the first time. Because our kids go to day school, and the grant is for people who’s kids are in public school. It feels almost punishing to be so committed to giving our children this Jewish education. The stress of it makes me cry.

Nothing is more important to us than sending our kids to day school. It just shouldn’t be this hard.

Debra is an award-winning journalist and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights). She can be reached at DNussbaumC@forward.com

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